The Heart of the Matter

heart

A healthy heart is key to a healthy life. (Photo credit: Tlorna/Shutterstock)

February is the month of the heart. Not only home to Valentine’s Day–the day to celebrate the love long-considered to originate from the heart–in the United States, February is designated as National Heart Month. It is a time for all to think seriously about the prevention of heart disease and make efforts to decrease the number of heart attacks in the country. In its essence, the heart can seem a pretty simple device: a pump to push blood through the body. Yet, the heart is a pretty amazing organ, and many facts about the heart and the prevention of heart disease just may surprise you. Here in no particular order are some of them.

First, the heart is a real workhorse. In an average day, it beats approximately 100,000 times. These beats produce a total energy enough to drive a truck for 20 miles. Theoretically, the heart is strong enough to lift 3000 pounds and shoot blood 30 feet. Each minute, the heart pumps 1.5 gallons of blood, which, in an average lifetime, adds up to about 1.5 million barrels of blood passed through the human body, the equivalent of 200 train tank cars. Interestingly, none of this blood goes to the corneas, the clear, outermost layer of the eye. Corneas get oxygen from tears and other fluids in the interior portion of the eye. Any blood vessels in the corneas would only cloud them, obscuring vision.

The pit-a-pat associated with the heartbeat is the sound of heart valves opening and closing. Some say that the heartbeat is what determines the average lifetime of a person, that the heart has only about a billion-and-a-half beats in it and no more. This is cited as one reason that larger animals, in particular mammals, live longer than others: their hearts beat more slowly. The bowhead whale, for example, has a heart rate estimated to be a little less than 10 beats per minute, and a life expectancy of around 200 years! Compare this to the heartbeat of a healthy human adult, which is about 78 beats per minute for women and 70 for men. Vigorous aerobic exercise over a period of time can decrease the resting heartrate, however, so a fit person may have a heart that beats only 55 times per minute or so. This savings of 20 beats per minute can add up, as much as 210 million beats over a 20 year period, or about 5 years of saved heartbeats!

Despite the robust nature of the heart, heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, just above cancer. (Interestingly, hearts rarely develop cancer as heart cells stop dividing early in life.) The term heart disease describes several conditions, such as coronary artery disease, which can cause heart attack, angina, heart failure, and arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats). Although several facets of modern-day life (smoking, bad diet, increasingly sedentary lifestyle, etc.) appear to increase the chances of someone developing heart disease, the condition is nothing new, as evidence of it has been found in 3000-year-old mummies. Studies show that vegetarians are 19 percent less likely to develop heart disease, and eating some dark chocolate each day can reduce ones chances of developing it by as much as 30 percent. Owning a cat also seems to help, but there’s some evidence that taking a multi-vitamin every day can actually increase the risks.

And while chest pains indeed may be a symptom of the worst consequence of heart disease–the heart attack–they are not the only one and by no means always accompany a heart attack. Sweating and pain in the upper abdomen, shoulder, back, throat, teeth, or jaw can also be signs. Harder to explain, however, are the statistics that show that heart attacks appear to be the most prevalent on Monday mornings between the hours of 8:00 and 9:00 a.m., with the most common days being Christmas Day, December 26th, and New Years Day. And if you want to estimate your chances for a heart attack, one thing you might do is take a look at your ring finger. Some evidence shows that a longer ring finger, one longer than the index finger of the same hand, the less likely it is that you will experience a heart attack in early middle age.

Lest any of this take away some of the mysteries of the heart, and its long-time association with two people falling in love, here are a few anecdotes that may bring some of that back. The heart apparently does beat differently depending on the music one is listening to, and two people in love are known to somehow synchronize their heartbeats to one anothers company.

More to Explore

Warning Signs of Heart Attack
CDC: About Heart Disease
Elevated resting heart rate, physical fitness and all-cause mortality: a 16-year follow-up in the Copenhagen Male Study (abstract)
Heart Facts

Comments

  1. This is a phenomenal article. So much to know! Thank you so much for putting this up there on Biozine.

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